Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Agricultural Shamanism and the Fairy Realm

(I have a list of fairy tales with shamanistic elements at the end of this article)

It is often presumed that shamanism comes from Siberia and the America's and that it didn't exist outside these regions. However, Winkelman (1990) found in his seminal work that nearly every culture has a history of shamanism. Many of these traditions continued in agricultural and pastoral societies. After all the folk religion which forms the basis of shamanism is about building a good relationship with the spirit world, with the fairies. The Sami particularly believed that;

The relationship with nature and its forces is not submissive but active. Humans can, when necessary, influence the powers of nature by giving, offering, sharing, asking, promising, taking care of, showing respect to, or assuming the shapes of animals. Offerings were made to the natural spirits only when necessary: for example, when a spirit was known to be angry because people had broken some rule. One did not ask spirits for help, but for goodwill and patience while one stayed in their area. Every geographical place was considered an entity in which the physical dimension was in balance with the spiritual one. (Delos Initiative)

People could plead with nature and its spirits throughout Europe, asking them for help. This relationship and the magico-religious ideas which came with it didn't end with the coming of agriculture or Christianity.

Take for example the benandanti of Northern Italy who would send their souls out of their body and riding upon rabbits, cats, or other animals would battle evil shamans for the fertility of the land and livestock. This is clearly connected with one of the most important jobs of shamans in Hunter Gathering societies, that of sending one's soul out of their body and into the spirit world to gather game animals to the tribe (and often battling shamans from other tribes in order to do so)


The benandanti were some of the most respected people in their society. Parents who's child was born with a caul over their head would keep the caul, telling their children of their duty to protect their villages crops when they got old enough. What likely got the benandanti into trouble was that their role began to shift as time went on to that of witch hunters. Once they began accusing people of being witches the families and friends of those accused began to rebel against them. This mixed with pressure from the Catholic church ultimately broke their power base.

The Sami pastoralists (reindeer herders) had strong shamanist roots into the last century, as did Japan where certain shamans would ride on bags of rice (representing their spirit horse) in order to obtain a good harvest from the Mountain Kami or even Buddhist Deities.

It's interesting to note, however, that the shamanism of pastoral and agricultural societies tended to be quitter than that of hunter gatherers. The Sami's shaman, as well as those of Northern Italy, would lay down and enter a trance, becoming so still it seemed that they were dead. Further while in this state it was believed to be dangerous for other people to be around them. The Shaman's of Japan often entered their trance with an audience, but they did so by staring into a bowl of water, with gentle chanting, the playing of a stringed interment. In Siberia Shamans would jump around, while a chanter and drummer sang loudly, often with the whole village present. The Pygmies of Africa would gather together and sing and dance wildly until they entered a trance state and were able to see the spirits of the forest. I don't know of any agricultural / pastoral shamans who sang or danced loudly in order to enter their trance like state. In general it seems to have been much quitter (if you know of any exceptions to this, please let me know about them as I would be very interested).

I can't be certain why shaman figures seem to be different in agricultural societies, however, it has been found repeatedly that our jobs tend to alter our personality in semi-predictable ways. In agricultural societies, for example, its been found that crops which require corporative farming such as rice and cotton cause cultures to become more collectivist. On the other hand crops such as wheat or individual cattle ranches tend to produce more individualist cultures. So it would make sense that there is a difference between those who hunt and fish for their food and those who farm it. It's important to understand that these differences are required for a people's survival and that it would be wrong to argue which method of survival is better or worse.

As agricultural societies urbanize such that creative people

Fairy Tales and Agricultural Shamanism
Agricultural Shamanism often shows up in fairy tales, though as with all shamanistic tales the meanings of these stories aren't always readily apparent to outsiders.

Take for example, the British story of Yarrley Brown a young hears a voice calling out for help. When at last he looks under a rock he sees a tiny male fairy covered in hair. This fairy thanks him for his help and from that point on assists him in farming. There is one problem, however, which is that the young man's co-workers and neighbors come to fear him because of his relationship with Yallery Brown so he becomes ostracized. Finally, feeling alone and angry he curses the fairy who grows angry and says that he'll ruin his life from that point on.

The important thing to keep in mind when reading a story like this is that people once believed that it was "dangerous to speak directly about the inner lives of shamans” Kira Van Deusen (2001),  “It which is why they discussed these using stories. Many of the pieces of fairy tales come from this need to discuss the spirit world in stories as well as from the magical beliefs people held about how the world functioned.”

The Yallery Brown has a number of motifs which are important to many Shamanistic tales;

1-Shamans often felt ostracized in many societies. Living within the world of fairies and spirits is lonely, which is why the last potential shaman in one Mancheria had an exorcist banish the spirits away from her so that she wouldn't have to become a lonely shaman. Other cunning in England, though respected, were also often lonely. They might benefit from work the fields with the help of their spirit companions but they had trouble connecting with other people.

2-Often shamans would gain their power by aiding a fairy or spirit. Sometimes, the spirit would pretend to need rescuing in order to try to test the shaman or to get the shaman to interact with them.

3-In Russia and Siberia people would often avoid strange looking rocks because they were afraid that if they touched them the spirit within would force them to become a shaman like figure. Rocks were an important home for spirits. The Sami of Northern Europe, many people's of North Africa, and the Japanese all viewed rocks as one of the primary homes of their deities.

4-Perhaps the most important part of the tale of Yallery Brown, and the moral is that, if the spirits seek to force you to become a shaman you must accept your role as a shaman. Yallery Brown was in essence a warning tale which taught that no matter how bad being a shaman is, it's far worse to have the spirits angry with you.

Why Shamanism Vanished

1-Shamanism competes with the leaders of any nation for power. This is why the Emperor of Japan outlawed Shamanistic practices multiple times starting about 1300 years ago. After all a shaman which communes with deities and spirits can state that the emperor is displeasing the divine beings. (This is also why the Christian Churches of Europe worked so hard to discredit anyone who said they could talk to angels or god)

2-The spirits are demanding. People who become shamans suffer through poverty (often demanded by the spirits), the shamans sickness (they appear to be mad or have epileptic fits), and more. As societies present new opportunities for the creative and intelligent to become rich many of these people decide not to become shamans, resisting the call of the spirits and even going so far as to hire exorcist to get rid of the spirits who seek to turn them into shamans.

3-Structured societies demand more normalized behavior. The oddity of the shamans sickness and the spirits causes people to reject the shaman.

These things all happen even in what we would consider ancient societies. The Greeks, for example, began to reject the call of the nymphs 2500 years ago, the Japanese Emperor Outlawed Shamanism over a thousand years ago. Of course even then the importance of shamanism persisted in these societies until the rise of the middle class in the past fifty years.

List of Fairy Tales With Shamanistic Elements
Since it was forbidden to speak of the secret lives of shamans and spirit journeys directly they were often told in stories which contained some of the elements of a shamans experience. These are a few stories with these elements.

Yallary Brown

The Serpent Wife (page 103)
A man goes out into the woods alone and meets an animal who becomes his wife. This mystical wife helps him to gather food and do his work. Basically this story has all the elements of shamanism in an agricultural setting.

Jack and the Bean Stalk
A young man who everyone considers a fool (shamans often struggled with this early in their lives) encounters a strange spirit who gives him magical beans that allow him to climb up into the heavens.

Well at the Worlds End
A Girl is sent to find a well at the end of the world. When she is at her lowest point she meets a spirit guide in the form of a frog who helps her.

Childe Rowland
A man must retrieve someone's soul from the lord of the elves whose taken it to the other world. One of the most common motifs for a shamans epic.

The Grateful fox
A young man saves a fox who helps him become rich.

Baba Yaga
With the help of a mouse a young girl over comes Baba Yaga (who is often considered a guardian to the realm of the dead and is likely related to many important spirits to shamans in Eurasia.)